The Power of a Good Critique

I mentioned in my earlier post, “Riding the Wild Word,” that writers need each other. We need each other for support, encouragement, reassurance that even though we are in fact crazy, it’s somehow okay. And specifically, we need each other for honest, intelligent criticism of our work, generally referred to as “critique.”

Some people say that a writer is one who writes—as opposed to just talking about it at cocktail parties (or, these days, on the internet). I say that a writer is one who has subjected him/herself to critique and has profited by it. Until you’ve done that, you’re just messing around.

Getting critiqued is, of course, a two-edged sword—in more ways than one. (Does that make it a four-edged sword? Sorry, it’s too late at night for geometry.) First, while a good critiquer will always find something to praise, he or she will also find something to—well, criticize. You will discover that your work is not perfect. If you have any sense, you suspected as much to begin with, but perhaps you cherished a tiny fantasy that your critiquer would finish your book and cry, “This is the most fantastic thing I ever read! Don’t change a word! And by the way, let me introduce you to my agent.”

Enjoy that fantasy and let it go. Ain’t gonna happen.

When you get that criticism, first you say “thank you,” very politely and with gracious self-control. Then you go home, lock yourself in your bedroom, and cry your eyes out. After that, you drink some wine or eat some chocolate or pet the cat, and get down to the work of revising, which will one day make you a real writer.

The second way in which critique is two-edged is that there is good critique and bad critique. I don’t mean flattering vs. unflattering; we already covered that. I mean intelligent vs. clueless. Some people will read your work, understand what you were trying to do, and give you suggestions for how you can do it better. Other people will read into your work their own agenda and make suggestions that are completely off the wall.

It’s your job to tell the difference.

In the beginning, when you’re insecure and desperate for approval, you want to accept every suggestion and try to implement it. If you do that, your work either ends up looking like a crazy quilt, or it loses every spark of life because you’re trying to follow all the “rules.” Remember the old story about the old man, the boy, and the donkey going to market? You’ll end up carrying the donkey.

This approach usually palls the day you get two critiquers saying precisely opposite things. Then you’re stuck—you’ve got to trust your gut whether you want to or not. So you do, and in the process you learn that your gut is fairly trustworthy. Gradually you gain confidence, until you reach the point that you know almost immediately whether a given suggestion is garbage or gold.

And when you get to that point, a good critique becomes a real joy. You read it, and a suggestion nestles into your mind and you think, “Yes, of course! Why didn’t I see that before?” And then you start revising, and the new words slide so effortlessly into place that you know they were meant to be there all along, only for some reason you were too blind to see it. And then you kiss your critiquer’s feet and offer praise to God that your eyes have been opened.

Sometimes a good critique is the only thing that can pull a manuscript out of a stalemate in which you couldn’t bear to look at it for months on end. Sometimes, a good critique can save your writing life.

So when you find those few people who “get” your work, cherish them! Stand by them, buy them coffee, critique their work intelligently in return. We can’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps in this business; but we can pull each other up.

This entry was posted in Writing.

4 comments on “The Power of a Good Critique

  1. Katherine,

    I just love this post. I try to be open to all critiques of my work, but have made some big mistakes when trusting editors over my own sense of how the work should go. I used to think that it was my job to be aggreable and easy to work with, often at the expense of my writing. Now I think it is my job to be discerning–to
    struggle toward the word I mean to write and to learn to hear those who can help me find it  and to ignore those who obscure it.

  2. So well said. The hardest part is finding helpful critique partners, ones that can be tactfully honest but have enough writing experience that their suggestions make sense. You still don’t have to follow their advice, but if you find a number of people agreeing with the same suggestions, that’s usually a good indication that the correction will do your book good. I just had a top editor reject my latest novel, said the book was “dark and depressing,” which was my biggest fear. But my three test readers all disagreed stongly, so I’m hesitant to lighten the tone. If I get three more NY eds saying that same thing, then I will make some changes.

  3. Very nice. It also helps if the critiquers actually like to critique and are confident in their suggestions—some will be embarrassed to point out weak spots, not helpful at all.

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